Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The free software hiring advantage

This is one of those startup tips I'm a little reluctant to share, because it's been such a powerful source of competitive advantage in the companies I've worked with. But I'm going to share it anyway, because it feels like the right thing to do. Here's the short version: hire people from the online communities that develop free software. (Yes, you may be more familiar with the term open source, but let's give credit where credit is due, at least for today).

Especially for a startup, not taking maximum advantage of free software is crazy. The benefits are many and much-discussed, and so I'll mention only one in passing. It's one of the easiest ways to get leverage in your development process, amplifying the power of your team by letting you take advantage of code written by thousands of others. It's obvious that can lower your development costs, but I think it's even more important that it can reduce your time to market. It can benefit your team in other, more surprising ways as well.

This approach gives you an edge in hiring. Most of the best programmers I've known are been active in at least one free software project. It's a wonderful filter for people who are intrinsically motivated by the art of programming. Beyond the quality of the candidates themselves, I've noticed three big effects of hiring out of free software communities:
  1. You can hire an expert in your own code base. I've had the good fortune to see this first-hand. I hired someone who was a key contributor to a library that was heavily used in our application. Although he didn't know much about our app when he started, he was able to be productive from day one, because we immediately put him to work extending our application's use of the library in question. He saw opportunities none of us could, because his point-of-view about what constituted "legacy code that I know well" and "third party code that some other strange people wrote" were exactly inverted from ours.

  2. You can hire people who have worked together. Another unexpected benefit comes when you hire people who are part of the same online coding community. They share a common language, culture, and coding style. They have a certain amount of trust based on having been part of a common mission, and they share a passion for the project's goals. That's all helpful for recruiting, retaining, and ramping-up a new employee. You don't have to guess who their mentor will be.

  3. You're not competing with every other company in town. This is especially true in Silicon Valley. The great programmers are already being headhunted by 10 other startups, and the cognitive overhead of trying to figure out which are actually unique opportunities is high. Free software contributors tend to be geographically dispersed, and so aren't part of the echo chamber. When you call, it's a more unusual occurrence, and you're more likely to get their attention.
If you want to successfully hire from a coding community, don't just barge in. Job posts almost never work; they're considered a form of spam. Instead, engage with the project. Submit patches. Make suggestions for how the project could be improved. Publish examples of how you use it. A surprising number of contributors to these projects have no idea how their work is used; I've often found myself in the position of being the largest single user of the software on the planet, without having ever talked to the people who wrote it. Talk about a reliable, low-maintenance vendor. This effort takes time, so this approach is not for the impatient. Still, the engagement itself is worthwhile, even if you never hire anyone. You're helping people who spend part of their lives helping you. It's basic self-interest.

Once you're part of the community, a big question is who to try and hire. As you get to know the contributors, it's evident who the real leaders are. Here's my heuristic for deciding who to approach. Ignore the famous people who are busy giving lots of speeches about how technology X will change the world. Find the person on the mailing list who patiently corrects newbies' mistakes. When someone writes in with a bad (but earnest) idea, who has the combination of in-depth knowledge and communications skills necessary to correct them without alienating them from the project? Communities that don't attract these kinds of leaders don't scale, so any successful project is bound to have some. It's worth the effort to bring them on board.

Once I've identified one of these superstars, here's what has worked for me. Approach them directly and privately. State your case plainly and be honest. I've found almost anyone will give you the time of day, if you tell them directly: "I am working on a company whose mission I profoundly believe in. We are heavy users of Project X, and are grateful to you for making that possible. Can I have a few minutes of your time?" Build up a relationship over time, find out what makes them tick, and try to make the case that your company is a great place to pursue that passion. If you're telling the truth, they'll come to see it your way eventually.

Given how many startups complain bitterly about how hard it is to find qualified programmers, I'm surprised more don't engage more fully with the people who make their technology stack possible. Try it, you just might like it. If you've never been a contributor to a free software project before, take a look at Contributing to Open Source Without Committing a Line Of Code.

Of course, if you're the target of one of these hiring calls, and not the company doing it, the perspective is pretty different. How do you evaluate a startup as a potential employer? As I promised over at Hacker News, I'll try and tackle that question in a future post. If you're interested in that topic, let me know in a comment.
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  1. Definitely interested in the perspective of the open-source contributor solicited with a job offer. Excellent post all around.

  2. That's some awesome advice. Thanks for sharing it rather than keeping it close to the chest!

  3. I'm definitely curious about your thoughts on how to present the company right. I find most often companies don't see the inverse correlation between letting their best practices and standards slide (e.g. getting sloppy with TDD, code quality, "good enough for shipping" attitude) and their ability to attract top talent. I'm curious to read your experience and the data you have to hammer this point home with self-absorbed executives.

  4. Hi,
    thanks for this awsome advice.
    I'm also very intrested in "How do you evaluate a startup as a potential employer?"